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by Lewis Geffen, 01/01/2004
For more than 20 years, Laurie Lewis has been a key figure in bluegrass, traditional country and folk music circles. As singer, songwriter, fiddler and more, Laurie has firmly established herself as one of the finest and talented artists in bluegrass music today.
In an era when female bluegrass singers seem all the rage, Laurie's position as a top bluegrass singer is undisputed. She has twice been voted Female Vocalist of the Year by the IBMA, in 1992 and 1994. Considering that Alison Krauss was among the competition in 1994, winning this award twice makes a tremendous statement about Laurie Lewis. As an interpreter of other's lyrics, one needs listen no further than her rendition of Kate Long's ballad "Who Will Watch The Home Place" (from her 1993 album True Stories), which was voted Song Of The Year by the IBMA in 1994.
Laurie is also highly regarded as an original songwriter. Her 1997 album, Earth & Sky: Songs of Laurie Lewis, is a compilation of several of her finest original compositions, including "Green Fields", "Don't Get Too Close", "The Point Of No Return", "Haven Of Mercy" and "Love Chooses You", the latter of which Kathy Mattea interpreted on her own Willow in the Wind project and made it one of the high points of that best selling album. Although I'm not aware of many others that have recorded Laurie's original compositions, Laurie's songwriting craft is much admired by both peers and fans alike. More than 40 songs penned by Laurie are now collected in her songbook "Earth and Sky: the Laurie Lewis Songbook".
Laurie grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, learning to play classical violin as a child. After being exposed to the vibrant bluegrass scene that was centered around bands that played regularly at Paul's Saloon “a big door opened for” her and she became, in her own words, “completely smitten” with bluegrass and fiddling. As Laurie recently stated in an interview “The things I love about bluegrass are its really visceral qualities and the way it is so bare-bones emotional. It's got this incredible energy.” From there, the early '70s were spent at fiddle contests, where she twice won the California State Women's Championship. Laurie is one of the best flat out “breakdown” fiddlers around and she has lent her fiddling talents to numerous recordings by her peers, including a recent appearance on Peter Rowan's Bluegrass Boy, on which both her fiddling and harmony singing blend well with Peter's efforts.
Laurie was a founding member of the pioneering West Coast bluegrass group the Good Ol' Persons in the mid '70s, though she stayed with the band less than two years. She also helped found the Grant Street String Band in 1979, and was a member of the bluegrass super group all-woman band Blue Rose. Beginning in 1986 with her first solo album Restless Rambling Heart, Laurie has consistently turned out wonderful music, albums that have gained her appreciative admiration from her peers in the music business and fans around the world. Some of my favorites, all of which are available on CD from Laurie's own website, are:
THE OAK AND THE LAUREL (1995) - After Laurie and Tom Rozum were seriously injured in a March 1994 auto accident, Laurie and her band put their efforts toward a project they had long talked about, an album of "brother-style" duets. On this album, Laurie and Tom interpret traditional country songs of the Carter Family ("My Dixie Darling" and "Texas Girl"), the Louvin Brothers (“My Baby Came Back") and Don Stover ("Poor Country Boy"), as well as "Teardrops Falling in the Snow", a song first popularized by Molly O'Day. The project's traditional and "old-timey" quality also stems from the pared down musical accompaniments to the duets, as well as the heartfelt and soulful vocals, although Laurie does demonstrate her fiddle talents on up-tempo cuts such "Sleepy-Eyed John” and “Tom and Jerry". Even contemporary songs such as Peter Rowan's "Dream Of A Home" and David Olney's "Millionaire" sound like old standards when handled as they are here. All in all, this album is a terrific collection of traditional and contemporary material that showcases Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum as they were meant to be - singing together. Notably, “The Oak and the Laurel" was nominated for a Grammy as "Best Traditional Folk Album" in 1996.
EARTH & SKIES: SONGS OF LAURIE LEWIS (1997) – Drawing from Laurie's three albums on the Flying Fish label, plus four previously unreleased tracks, this collection of 16 original compositions is centered around her immense songwriting abilities. She is wary of falling in love in "Don't Get Too Close", wary of Prince Charming in “Girlfriend, Guard Your Heart” and accepts the awe and wonder of falling in love in the "The Point of Return" and “Love Chooses You.” “Old Friends” is about the handful of truly close friends that have a special hold on her affections. And her love of nature is the center of the hauntingly beautiful "Green Fields" and "The Hills of My Home". As Robert Oermann writes in the liner notes, the one thing that perhaps holds this diverse collection of compositions together is that “all of them are unforgettable. Her scope may be broad and her styles diverse, but Laurie Lewis has a singular steadfast gift – songs that abide with us and linger in our hearts. Songs that endure.” And, I would add, songs that are both written and sung with heart and soul. This CD is a collection that shouldn't be missed.
SEEING THINGS (1998) – The significance of this album's title is not to be overlooked – when it comes to songwriting, Laurie Lewis is gifted with vision, imagination and a sensitivity that lets her fully view and appreciate both the physical world and the human emotional landscape. Seeing Things is perhaps Laurie's most adventurous and groundbreaking project, ranging stylistically from the balladry of “Let the Bird Go Free” and “The Blackest Crow” to the swing and soul of “Blue Days, Sleepless Nights” to a very funky "Kiss Me Before I Die". Another highlight is the song "Manzanar," the story Japanese-American internment during World War II, for which Laurie blends American acoustic folk music with the beautiful sounds of the Japanese kyoto. In addition to regular band mates Todd Phillips (bass) and Tom Rozum (mandolin), Laurie is accompanied on this CD by some of the very finest acoustic musicians available: Rob Ickes (dobro), Darol Anger (violin), Tony Furtado (slide guitar) and Kathy Kallick (harmony vocals), to name a few.
LAURIE LEWIS & HER BLUEGRASS PALS (1999) – Throughout nearly her entire career, Laurie has been fortune to have been surrounded by talented musicians. With this effort, Laurie Lewis has put together on CD a very fine veteran team, most of which are her longtime companions both on the road and/or in the studio. On mandolin is Laurie's long-time friend and duet partner, Tom Rozum. A fine lead vocalist, he is also the ideal harmony partner for Laurie (as noted above, their duet collaboration "The Oak and the Laurel" was a Grammy nominee for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1996). Banjoist Craig Smith has impeccable taste, timing and tone, all of which have made him a much-sought-after studio player. His pedal-steel style banjo licks on "Stepping Stones," are a fantastic treat. Todd Phillips, who has been appearing regularly with Laurie since mid-1996, is a Grammy winning bassist and one of the few real stylists on the instrument and among the very best acoustic bass players in traditional music today. Mary Gibbons rounds out the group on rhythm guitarist and vocals. A veteran of many fine San Francisco Bay area bands, her playing is steady and her vocals blend effortlessly with those of Tom and Laurie. The song selection on Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals make evident Laurie's desire to return, though not entirely, to the sounds that first inspired her to take up bluegrass music as a teenager. On breakneck or up-tempo tunes such as “Tall Pines”, “Stepping Stones”, “Blow, Big Wind” and "Hard Luck and Trouble," Laurie uses her strong lead vocals and fiddle playing to drive the music. And on ballads or slower tunes such as Jean Ritchie's "Black Waters", Gillian Welch's "Acony Bell" and Hazel Dickens's "Beyond the River Bend", she proves can sing with great beauty, depth, range and emotion. All in all, this is another truly terrific effort from Laurie Lewis.
Each of the above albums demonstrate Laurie's instinctive feel for the lyric content of bluegrass, traditional country, and folk music. As singer, songwriter, song interpreter, fiddler and more, Laurie continues to leave her mark on those fortunate enough to hear her play and sing. Her eclectic mix includes plenty of bluegrass, but also some old-time country, folk music, swing, Cajun and even jazz. To simply call her a bluegrass artist does not do her music or her range of talent justice. But to dismiss her as not bluegrass at all, as some purists do, is a myopic misunderstanding. If you've never heard Laurie Lewis, you've missed out on the diverse talents of a very gifted woman.
The short samples below were selected with care. One of the finest covers of Ramblin' Jack Elliot's “Diamond Joe”, from her 1991 CD Singin' My Troubles Away, shows Laurie's strong lead vocals and fiddle driving a traditional bluegrass tune. Her own “Don't Get Too Close,” which appears on both Singin' My Troubles Away (1991) and Earth & Sky: Songs Of Laurie Lewis (1997), demonstrates her compositional inventiveness and imagination, as well as the beautiful sound of Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum singing together. Enjoy!